Two Great Fests for Film Buffs

by Sura Wood

From indies to classics and from Mumbai to Wall Street, two prominent Bay Area film festivals offer, between them, broad-ranging fare.

The San Francisco Independent Film Festival (SF IndieFest), now a respectable 16 years old, continues to spotlight idiosyncratic, subversive films, road movies, explorations of underground culture, topical documentaries and experimental animation geared toward younger audiences. Meanwhile, the Mostly British Film Festival, a relative newcomer, screens recent cinema from the U.K., Ireland, Australia and India, as well as classics like “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” the 1965 Cold War espionage thriller based on the John le Carré novel, starring Richard Burton.

Mostly British Film Festival

Mostly British kicks off with “Le Week-end,” a tip of the hat to Jean-Luc Godard and the giddy rebel spirit of the French New Wave. This beautifully acted, astutely written second collaboration between director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi tells of an older London couple, played with brio and stifled rage by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, who return to Paris for their 30th anniversary. There they spend a revelatory, less than idyllic few days. The actors are entirely believable as restless partners in a long marriage plagued by irritations, fury, boredom and deep attachment. Jeff Goldblum, playing a college friend the pair runs into in Paris, is amusing as an eloquent, though vacuous, pseudo-intellectual.

The Lunchbox,” a delicately constructed romantic feature from first-time writer/director Ritesh Batra, features Irrfan Khan, an exquisitely sensitive Indian performer who betrays a wealth of emotion with a subtle shift of his gaze as Saajan, a grouchy, formal, somewhat laconic widower. Saajan is a government functionary in Mumbai whose life begins to change when he accidentally receives daily lunchboxes of delicious meals prepared by a lovely young woman who intended them for her neglectful husband, whose waning interest she hopes to rekindle through his stomach. (In India, lunchbox deliverymen do a booming business transporting thousands of hot meals a day to male office workers, and then returning the empty containers to the wives.) So begins a sweetly tentative, hand-written correspondence—guarded notes smuggled inside the pots—between two lonely people that blossoms into tenderness.

A continent and worlds away, “What Richard Did” centers on a group of affluent youth in Dublin, one of whom commits an impulsive, violent act with tragic ramifications. The Richard of the title, a handsome, athletic, privileged teenager with an easygoing magnetism, good fellowship with his rugby teammates, a loving family and a beach house, seems headed for success and a life of ease when he suddenly explodes in a fit of frustration and jealousy. Based on an actual case, Lenny Abrahamson’s absorbing, suspenseful film is understated in its examination of how a split-second decision can destroy lives.

And for Beatles aficionados there’s Ryan White’s irresistible documentary “Good Ol’ Freda,” a walk down memory lane with the lads’ secretary, Freda Kelly, as a few choice hit songs play on the soundtrack. Kelly was a teenage stenographer in Liverpool when she was hired by the Beatles’ then-manager, Brian Epstein, to answer their fan mail, a task she performed with dedication until the band’s infamous breakup. Down to earth, upbeat and still a fan after all these years, she had a unique, first-hand perspective of their extraordinary rise—and boy, does she have stories to tell.

Feb. 13 → 20

The Vogue Theater, San Francisco

Feb. 18 → 20

Select films shown at

The Rafael Film Center, San Rafael

SF IndieFest

IndieFest opens with “The Congress,” an inventive combination of hallucinatory animation and live action from Israeli writer/director Ari Folman (“Waltz with Bashir”) that features a crackerjack cast: Jon Hamm, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti and Robin Wright. They star in a fantasy about Hollywood that takes place in a not-so-distant alternative future—which in some recognizable respects has already arrived. Wright, playing a version of herself, is a beautiful, out-of-work actress in her forties who’s offered a deal with the devil: .in exchange for allowing her image, emotions, facial expressions and physical movements to be “scanned and sampled” for unrestricted use in a variety of Hollywood films—like the inane sci-fi series “Robin, Rebel, Robot”—the studio, embodied by a venal executive (Danny Huston), offers her an astronomical sum of money and guarantees that her digitized identity will remain forever young in movieland. The film then picks up 20 years later, after her contract has expired.

Two documentaries that couldn’t be more different illustrate the difficulty of categorizing this festival’s eclectic programming. In her revealing film “i hate myself :),” Joanna Arnow is both director and subject of an uninhibited portrait of her sexuality, her flawed relationships, especially with her offensive poet/performance artist boyfriend, and the rites of modern dating in Brooklyn. Her willingness to bare body and soul for the camera, as well as her relentless preoccupation with herself, is reminiscent of Lena Dunham’s character in the HBO series “Girls.” Meanwhile, Joe Berlinger’s “Hank: 5 Years from the Brink” looks at the bigger picture, the period before the 2008 economic crash. Berlinger, the veteran documentarian behind the “Paradise Lost” trilogy and “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” focuses on Hank Paulson, former Goldman Sachs CEO, who relates how he successfully persuaded banks, Congress and presidential aspirants to support $1 trillion in bailout funds to keep the economy from collapsing.

IndieFest closes on a chilling note with Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin,” a low-budget revenge thriller inspired by the literary genre fiction of Cormac McCarthy and George Pelecanos. Shot in Virginia, the story revolves around Southern blood feuds and vendettas as it follows Dwight, a homeless man turned amateur assassin who cleans up his act to settle an old score: killing the men responsible for the murder of his parents 20 years earlier.

Feb 6 → 20

The Brava and Roxie theaters